US Government wants to keep Internet control
  Heavy discussions around and beyond no-yet released WGIG report
  4 July 2005. The United States government has kicked off another round of heated discussions about Internet governance. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael Gallagher on 30 June announced that his government clearly intends to keep the final control over the root zone file that lists all top-level domain entries. This move came a bit unexpected, and the experts are now discussing what the implications will be for the upcoming ICANN meeting and the release of the report of the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance.

Strong statement of principles from Washington

The question of "who should control the Internets core resources" started one of the hottest debates in the first phase of the WSIS, with no agreement reached in Geneva in 2003. The UN Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) that was set up afterwards just finished work on its report, which will be publicly released on 18 July. In previous WGIG consultations, the US government had taken a more humble stance. In April, the US delegate had almost searched an excuse for the prominent role of the US in Internet governance and management:

"This may be the situation now because it's the way the Internet developed in the past. It is a matter of history rather than due to any kind of conspiracy. No conclusion should be drawn as to what will happen."

Now Michael Gallager, who is as high as you can get in the administration's Internet governance food chain, announced four principles for the United States policy on the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS):

  1. The US government will "maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file."
    This relates to the authoritative file that lists all top-level domain names - like com, org, int, gov and all country code domains like fr, de or jp and links these to addressing systems. Given the international importance of the Internet, a number of governments had pressed for an internationalization of the root in the WSIS process.
  2. "Governments have legitimate interest in the management of their country code top level domains (ccTLD)", and the US is willing to discussions here.
    This is another issue a number of governments had complained about, as they see in the management of their country code domain a matter of national sovereignty. It seems the US government is willing to give them something. The negotiation line is quite clear: You get your country domain, we keep the root zone file. The only problem is: The management of country code domains is already a matter of national policies and legislations. The only part left is the entry of these domains in the root zone file.
  3. "ICANN is the appropriate technical manager of the Internet DNS", and the US government "will continue to provide oversight".
    Here, the US government is at first sight opposing demands to hand over ICANN's functions to the ITU - a suggestion with little chance of agreement in the WSIS. It more realistically is opposing the recently developed (or re-called) demand of the European Union for a more internationalized oversight mechanism.
  4. "Dialogue related to Internet governance should continue in relevant multiple fora", where "the United States will continue to support market-based approaches and private sector leadership".
    This is an old principle of the United States and not really surprising. Is should be read as an offer for further discussions about these issues.

Recommendations from the WGIG report

The experts in the civil society Internet Governance Caucus and elsewhere are now discussing the implications of this latest move. Some see it as a continuation of the United States' policy on Internet governance and especially ICANN all along since Clinton and Gore and their "Internet Czar" Ira Magaziner. Others concede a change in the US administration's positions, but say that this took place after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, when "security" became the dominant force in all their policy decisions. Consequently, the U.S. wants to "preserve the security and stability" of the Internet, as Gallager stated, and does not trust anyone else here, especially not the United Nations. Quite a few of the Internet Governance experts (and most of the mass media who always look for breaking news stories) saw a new aspect, to say the least, in the timing and content of this announcement. Milton Mueller from the Internet Governance Project even spoke of a "bombshell".

After a few days of digesting, some things have become clearer, especially because the most important content from the not-yet released and pretty secret report of the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) have become public now. The WGIG has discussed two structural functions for Internet Governance that have to be fulfilled: discussion/coordination and decision/oversight.

On the "forum function" for coordination, discussion and exchange between the various institutions, the WGIG report will include a recommendation for a global "UN Internet Forum" that should become the central discussion space on Internet governance for governments, civil society and the private sector. In a way, the WGIG hereby is asking for an extension of its mandate and inclusion of much more groups and stakeholders. Surely, a lot of the discussions in ICANN, IETF, W3C, ISOC, WIPO, UNESCO and OECD - to name but a few from the almost endless alphabet soup - could be better coordinated and linked. And more exchange between the political and the technical community can definitely help mutual understanding, as WGIG and the WSIS have shown. But political conflicts can not always (and not in most cases) be solved by pure discussion and exchange of arguments.

Therefore, the WGIG has also discussed the "oversight function" of Internet governance. Here, the differences could not really be reconciled. All WGIG members agreed on the need to overcome the system of unilateral oversight by the United States government, which was easy, as the latter had decided not to join WGIG in the first place. But beyond that, the group members' opinions ranged from private self-regulation to an international treaty with a new UN agency for oversight. Here, the WGIG report will only offer four options: 

  • Model 1 would maintain the status quo and only change some aspects of ICANN's "Governmental Advisory Commiteee" (GAC).
  • Model 2 would include slightly less international governmental oversight.
  • Model 3 would include slightly more international governmental oversight.
  • Model 4 would replace ICANN with a new "World Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers" (WICANN) with oversight provided by an intergovernmental "Global Internet Policy Council" (GIPC) and a "Global Internet Governance Forum" (GIGF) in an advisory role.

The WGIG report in its latest draft is surely known by the U.S. administration. With their recent move, they are more or less saying: "A discussion forum is okay, and we are not afraid of discussing with everybody. But as the WGIG itself could not agree on the oversight model, we do not see the need for giving up our central role yet." What came as a surprise to many, though, was the announcement by Gallager that the U.S. will maintain its oversight over ICANN. The 1998 Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Commerce and ICANN is ending in late 2006, and so far the plan had been to let ICANN of the leash then.

Implications for further debate: What is this all about?

The reasons for the U.S. government's move are obvious: They did not join the WGIG when it was set up, to have an easier position for dismissing any of its recommendations. Now, one week before the next ICANN meeting and two weeks before the official presentation of the WGIG report, the timing of this "bombshell" was chosen carefully. The whole debate is now centred around the US government and its relation to ICANN, while the WGIG report will be pushed into the background. It will be interesting to see how ICANN positions itself in this game. It will have to insist on its great degree of independency, while the credibility of this claim is undermined now. Therefore, even ICANN could have some interest in getting other governments more involved. The EU governments at least are not willing to accept more influence in a private corporation under Californian law. The big players outside the West - China, Brazil, South Africa and others - will definitely try to promote the ITU model of multilateralism again. WSIS 2 in Tunis in November can easily end like WSIS 1 in Geneva ended: With no consensus and another round of discussions.

These hybrid institutions of the Internet times are clearly a challenge to traditional diplomacy, and currently the discussion is all about the United States versus the EU versus the big Southern countries. What is getting lost thereby is the importance of civil society inclusion and the voice of the users and citizens. Civil society has to carefully avoid joining forces with one of the governments in this old-school power play. Instead, it should re-focus on the values and principles developed in the civil society Geneva declaration. It should speak in the name of the users - their privacy, their freedom of expression, their right to communicate and so on. And it should keep a firm stand on some basic principles and properties the Internet should keep, no matter who controls it: Unfiltered end-to-end connections, anonymous use, open standards and some more.

Some experts are now afraid of a fragmentation of the Internet, with the "friends of the ITU" faction possibly starting an alternative root system. But calm down. You can be pretty sure that the Internet will not break because of political struggles at the Geneva Lake or the East River. The Internet has become so vital for many parts of our society and economy that the private sector alone will make sure it keeps running. Fragmentation is there already, thanks to filter technologies designed by Cisco, Siemens and others that are running on the gateway computers at the Chinese borders and elsewhere. Some other experts say that the functioning of the Internet would not be disturbed at all if ICANN ceased to exist tomorrow, only some trademark holders would have it a bit harder.

The civil society Internet Governance Caucus is currently developing a position as input for the ICANN meeting and the WGIG report presentation. With more than 200 members from all over the world on its mailing list now, we can only hope they can avoid another diplomatic bargaining process that either leads to no real result or waters down every position until you can see through it. Civil society groups should focus on their turf, not get trapped too much into the various institutions and their struggles, and think about what the Internet they want should look like. And then step back a bit and remember that the whole debate of WSIS is not about technical systems, it is about people. And then think again.


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